The Betty White of American Politics: Why Bernie’s Young Fans Love Him

Why his young fans like him

This illustration can only be used with the Nora Caplan-Bricker piece that originally ran in the 6/20/2015 issue of National Journal magazine.
Ryan Inzana
Nora Caplan-Bricker
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Nora Caplan-Bricker
June 19, 2015, 1:01 a.m.

Brendan Eprile re­mem­bers the first time he saw Bernie Sanders on TV. Eprile was an 8-year-old grow­ing up in Ver­mont, and he re­calls “be­ing amazed, be­cause I un­der­stood what he was talk­ing about, un­like all the oth­er politi­cians.” Sanders was on his soap­box about Ir­aq — or maybe it was eco­nom­ic in­equal­ity? In any case, the fam­ously blunt in­de­pend­ent from Bur­l­ing­ton had him riv­eted. Jo­nah Ra­gir has a sim­il­ar re­col­lec­tion. When he was young, he says, his grand­moth­er was watch­ing Sanders on C-SPAN in her Cali­for­nia liv­ing room. “I asked my grandma who he was, be­cause he didn’t sound like the oth­er guys who were speak­ing,” Ra­gir says. “He wasn’t ‘bor­ing’ and he wasn’t ‘ly­ing,’ were the words I used as a little kid.”

When Sanders an­nounced in late April that he was run­ning for pres­id­ent, Eprile, now a rising ju­ni­or at Ober­lin Col­lege, and Ra­gir, who at­tends Santa Mon­ica Col­lege, were among the stu­dents who con­tac­ted his cam­paign to vo­lun­teer. (As of early June, Bernie 2016 told me it had heard from schools in al­most every state.) As the most lib­er­al can­did­ate in the race, Sanders is, in many ways, the nat­ur­al can­did­ate of the cam­pus left. He is also, however, a no­tori­ously tetchy sep­tua­gen­ari­an. How, I wondered, do the young­est gen­er­a­tion of Bernie sup­port­ers re­late to him? What ex­actly is driv­ing their en­thu­si­asm for this throw­back product of the 1960s?

Cer­tainly, his po­s­i­tions on the is­sues are part of the equa­tion. Sanders, like most left-wing stu­dents, is an­ti­war, anti-money-in-polit­ics — and anti-stu­dent-loan-debt, which he has pro­posed to cur­tail by mak­ing col­lege free. “As a per­son in his 70s, he’s more in tune with our gen­er­a­tion’s plight than I would ar­gue Hil­lary Clin­ton is, and even Mar­tin O’Mal­ley at this point, and for sure the right wing,” says Adam Schwartz, a stu­dent at the Uni­versity of Wis­con­sin, Madis­on. They like him on so­cial is­sues as well — even though Sanders re­gards those as very sec­ond­ary to his eco­nom­ic mes­sage. One stu­dent after an­oth­er noted Sanders’s long-stand­ing sup­port of mar­riage equal­ity as com­pared with Hil­lary Clin­ton’s slow “evol­u­tion.” Plus, his car­bon-tax pro­pos­al has en­deared him to the en­vir­on­ment­al crowd.

Sanders is also the kind of politi­cian stu­dents tend to em­brace be­cause they see him as above polit­ics. “He’s not play­ing the role of a politi­cian, but of a per­son who wants to do good,” says Eliza­beth Lee of Middle­bury Col­lege. Where most pols “in­tro­duce le­gis­la­tion just to get the brownie points,” says Schwartz, Sanders “stands by it, and then he floats it re­peatedly.” Nikolaus Hofer, a stu­dent at Prin­ceton Uni­versity, vo­lun­teered for Barack Obama in 2012 and New Jer­sey Sen­at­or Cory Book­er in 2013 — but says he feels let down by both former idols. “The prob­lem was, they’re politi­cians,” he ex­plains. “They’re trad­ing things for each oth­er, bal­an­cing one thing against an­oth­er.” Sanders, he says, is “not try­ing to swim through all this muck — he’s on a surf­board cruis­ing right over it. I love the guy.”

Sanders on a surf­board? “I love the guy”? It wasn’t just Hofer: In talk­ing to Sanders’s young sup­port­ers, it be­came clear that their en­thu­si­asm for him ex­ten­ded well bey­ond his po­s­i­tions. The stu­dents who sup­port him don’t just agree with him: They seem to think that he, per­son­ally, is kind of awe­some.

The com­par­is­on between Sanders and Obama is, it turns out, in­struct­ive. Sanders is in most sig­ni­fic­ant ways the op­pos­ite of the can­did­ate young pro­gress­ives fell for eight years ago. It’s true that Obama, like Sanders today, ran in 2008 as a kind of anti-politi­cian, but he was non­ethe­less the con­sum­mate mod­ern can­did­ate: young, pol­ished, so­cial-me­dia-ready. Sanders, mean­while, is dour, pess­im­ist­ic, and not the kind of guy one ex­pects to share a laugh with — un­less maybe it’s over the words “hope and change.” Wit­tingly or not, Sanders seems to be join­ing a small cadre of oth­er no-bull­shit old people — think Betty White or Chuck Grass­ley — whose per­ceived lack of guile res­on­ates with di­git­al nat­ives. He’s “dis­arm­ingly straight­for­ward,” says Frank Fritz, a stu­dent at George Wash­ing­ton Uni­versity. “He’s not try­ing to win the game of who acts the most pres­id­en­tial or has the best me­dia team. He’s good on so­cial me­dia be­cause he’s hon­est about what he thinks.”

Sanders’s groom­ing habits are a key part of his charm. One stu­dent after an­oth­er praised his white hair, which is in­fam­ous for lift­ing off his head in struck-by-light­ning-level dis­ar­ray. A guy that un­con­cerned with sur­faces, the stu­dents ar­gue, must be worthy of their trust. He “doesn’t care about his im­age,” says Hofer; he is “clearly not con­cerned about keep­ing up an ap­peal.” Sanders might be a 73-year-old man, “but at the end of the day, it seems he’s the most youth­ful can­did­ate out there,” Hofer says. “That he’s un­kempt is a draw for people,” says Ra­gir. “I know in my life — I’m 21 — I’ve seen Clin­ton, Bush, Obama. These are people who just look per­fect. Everything about them is per­fect. And Bernie is this real per­son.” He “comes off a little grungy,” says Lee. “It works for him.”

It even seems to help that Sanders is so un­likely to make it to the Oval Of­fice. “You know, our gen­er­a­tion is sort of the hip­ster gen­er­a­tion, and the school I go to, people are very in­to not be­ing main­stream,” says Eprile. “I think, hon­estly, a lot of people don’t think he’s go­ing to win and like that in a weird way. “… He’s the edgy can­did­ate.” The sen­at­or, con­curs Uni­versity of Texas of the Per­mi­an Basin gradu­ate Timothy McDaniel, “is kind of re­bel­li­ous.” Like a fixed-gear bike or a col­lec­tion of vinyl, Sanders is trend­ily ana­log and im­prac­tic­al. Says Eprile: “I do hear a lot of people say, ‘Oh, he’s so cool.‘“Š”

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